Electrifying careers in the power sector

The power sector is not viewed as a sexy industry by most IT professionals. This and many other utilities, however, are planning the types of projects that make IT professionals salivate. And thanks to demographics, a large number of positions will be available in the near future.

The power sector will be hard hit by retiring boomers in the coming years. About 40 per cent of the workforce will be eligible to retire by 2014, and many are opting for early retirement.

About 2,000 to 3,000 new hires per year will be needed overall for the 2005-2009 period Canada-wide, and of these, about 10 to 15 per cent are IT-related positions, said Tom Goldie, CEO of the Canadian Electricity Association (CEA), an organization mandated to address the sector’s human resources issues.

When IT professionals consider the marketplace for jobs, their first choice is in areas such as the high-tech sector, and they write off heavy industries such as utilities, mining and forestry, observes Dietmar Reiner, CIO of Toronto-based Ontario Power Generation (OPG). “People need to get past images and dig a little deeper,” he said.

“When it comes to pay and benefits, [heavy] industries tend to be ahead of the scale. Compared with high-tech, there is more stability in utilities. And there are some very sexy things going on.”

There are plenty of projects involving emerging technologies underway, said Sandy Struthers, CIO of Toronto-based Hydro One. “We are looking at mobile computing, WiMax and GIS — and smart metering is coming,” he said. “Utilities are now looking at using technology far more than they ever did in the past.”

Struthers described some of the upcoming opportunities on the transmission and distribution side of the power business.

There are a number of critical infrastructure positions in the operations area, he said. Power grid maintenance requires highly specialized IT staff with good engineering skills in addition to IT expertise. “This is a unique microcosm of IT,” said Struthers, adding that utilities are pre-hiring for these jobs years in advance of openings so there is sufficient time for in-depth training with experienced mentors.

In addition, Hydro One will be upgrading platforms and applications that were implemented to deal with Y2K and are now due for replacement. “There is a huge amount of work, and all utilities [across Canada] face the same issue,” said Struthers. “We will be replacing our financial, customer and work management systems.”

There is also a movement under way across the sector to “de-customize” ERP applications that were initially tailored, he said, and revert them to their more easily managed vanilla versions. “This means there will be significant process change issues, and we’ll need project managers and business analysts for that.”


On the GIS front, Hydro One has wires running throughout Ontario, explains Struthers, and is responsible for maintenance, forestry and urban design work for the physical components of the power grid. If you take a map of Ontario, he said, and overlay Hydro One’s grid system, and then overlay elements such as outages, topography and field offices, you have a very strong tool to manage planning and scheduling with maximum efficiency. Integration work will be needed to connect these elements with work management systems, so mobile field crews can be deployed with handheld GIS tablet devices. “This is really cool technology,” said Struthers.

The power generation side of the business has some different needs, said Reiner. OPG runs the bulk of the province’s electricity-generating assets — coal, gas, nuclear and hydro power — and there are many specialized IT operations positions associated with each energy category.

In addition, keeping the lights on requires systems that respond to plant- and market-related data in real-time to the transaction systems that run batch jobs overnight, he said. OPG is also in the energy trading business, selling energy products and derivatives into North American markets, and has specialized financial systems to facilitate trading.

OPG is a very material-intensive operation, requiring a constant stream of replacement valves, pipes and parts to maintain its power plants in top working order so they can meet their capacity targets. There is good future potential in RFID with sensor technology to manage the logistics, said Reiner. “This is a huge headache without RFID. And the materials component is absolutely critical.”

Globally, utilities are probably the largest growth sector taking advantage of IT outsourcing to handle generic IT functions, he said. “That introduces the new discipline of managing the business of IT, which requires technical knowledge combined with business acumen.”

To sharpen business skills, Reiner works out exchange programs with OPG’s business units to rotate his IT staff into their areas so they can learn about business issues, and vice versa. To develop technical skills, staff are also rotated for periods of time into different parts of the IT organization.

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